Over the past seventy five years, the people of Pakistan have been told—in the most desperate of times, and euphoric of moments—that our country, geographically, sits at the heart of regional pivot. It is our gift, and our curse. That the ‘Great Game’ in Asia, by Western and regional powers, cannot be ‘played’ without Pakistan. This idea of geographic indispensability, as elusive as it is to articulate, has governed Pakistan’s regional and foreign policy over the past four decades, ever since Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan. But what is this ‘Great Game’? What are its objectives? And why does Pakistan matter so much in its context?
At its inception, the ‘Great Game’ was a political and diplomatic confrontation that existed, during the 19th century, between the then British Empire, and the then Russian Empire, over Afghanistan, Tibetan Kingdom, and the neighbouring territories of Central and South Asia.
Specifically, on January 12, 1830, Lord Ellenborough, then then President of Britain’s Board of Control for India, instructed Lord Willian Bentinck, the then Governor-General, to establish a new trade route to the ‘Emirate of Bukhara’. Britain intended to gain control over the Emirate of Afghanistan and make it a protectorate, and to use the Ottoman Empire, the Persian Empire, the Khanate of Khiva, and the Emirate of Bukhara as buffer states between the British and the Russian empires. This would protect India and also key British sea trade routes by stopping Russia from gaining a port in the Indian Ocean and the Persian Gulf. The results included the failed First Anglo-Afghan War of 1838, the First Anglo-Sikh War of 1845, the Second Anglo-Sikh War of 1848, the Second Anglo-Afghan War of 1878, and the annexation of Kokand by Russia.
The term, ‘Great Game’ itself dates back to the mid-19th century. It is attributed to a British Captain Arthur Conolly. In July 1840, Conolly, in a correspondence to Major Henry Rawlinson, the then British political agent in Kandahar, wrote, “You’ve a great game, a noble game, before you.” Little did Conolly know, at the time, that this phrase will haunt this region, its conflict and politics, for the next two centuries.
At the turn of the 20th century, some historians claimed that the ‘Great Game’ had come to an end on in September of 1895, with the signing of the Pamir Boundary Commission protocols, and resulting settlement of the border between Afghanistan and the Russian empire. As it turns out, this conclusion of the ‘Great Game’, was merely a hiatus. Fast-forward 70 years: Afghanistan’s invasion by the Soviet Union, in December of 1979, and the modern-day reincarnation of the ‘Great Game’.
As the United States and the Soviet Union sketched their respective plans for regional and global domination, Afghanistan’s Great Game once again took center stage. As Soviet tanks rolled into Afghanistan, in 1979, in pursuit of Captain Arthur Connelly’s Great Game, they were faced with critical difference from all the past conflict in this region–Afghanistan had a new neighbor: Pakistan.
Pakistan, which had gained independence from the British Empire some 30 years earlier, proved instrumental in the Soviet episode of the Great game. Supported by the United States, as part of the larger Cold War, Pakistan helped local Afghan Mujahideen bring defeat the Soviet military, thereby precipitating the collapse of the Soviet Union.
In many ways, Pakistan, with its critical geo-strategic location, was responsible for ushering in the age of a unipolar world. One in which the United States enjoyed complete hegemony over military and diplomatic power across the world. Terms such as the ‘Great Game’ and ‘Cold War’, become a memory of the past. Who was ever going to challenge the mighty Americans? With all their money, all their military, all their allies, and all their pomp? Who was going to stand up in the face of shock-and-awe? Who was going to compete with stealth technology and done warfare?
Well, as it turns out, in the aftermath of 9/11, drunk in its superpower stupor, the United States stumbled into the ‘graveyard of Empires’. And once again, Pakistan’s geo-strategic location made it a ‘front-line State’ in the new ‘Great Game’.
This time, the Great Game had different players. There was the United States and NATO forces, which had travelled over multiple oceans and continents to state their claim in this region. Then, there were the local side-kicks of these powers: Hamid Karzai, Ashraf Ghani, and India. These local players, working on Indian impetus, saw American presence in the region as an opportunity to settle their personal scores with Pakistan and its establishment. India saw this as an opportunity to open a second front with Pakistan on its Western border, while fully employing Ajit Doval’s hybrid-war doctrine to perpetrate terrorism, from Afghan soil, inside Pakistan.
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Pakistan was faced with an incredibly difficult choice: to save its immediate existence, by siding with the American forces, while defending its long-term regional interests, by not alienating the Mujahideen fighters. Walking this thin line, cost Pakistan dearly. Loss of 70,000 lives, and economic impact in excess of some $150 billion.
During this time, we head phrases such as the ‘Balkanization of Pakistan’. New maps, which carved Pakistan into four independent States, were floated in the intelligence circles. The United States, prompted by its new love-affair with India, recalibrated into policy to carve out “Af-Pak”–a region of terror, constituting just two countries.
However, despite all the odds, through some miracle, Pakistan was able to survive the past 20 years. And a bigger miracle still, was that the United States and its allies, with all the pomp, technology and resources in the world, were defeated by the Taliban. Continuing with the trail of miracles, during this time, China—the only real friend that Pakistan had—rose to challenge the global dominance of the United States. More specifically, China also got into direct conflict with the biggest posse of the United States in this region, India. And, incredibly, Chinese chose to rest their plans of global economic dominance, on the CPEC route that crosses through Pakistan.
Suddenly, the geo-strategic position of Pakistan had once again placed it in the central of the new Great Game. This time, with different allies, different enemies, and different objectives.
Unlike the past, this time Pakistan seems to want a bigger role in the Great Game. It is no longer willing to serve as a hired gun–working to achieve the ambitions of some other force. Pakistan wants a piece of the pie. An economic stake in the global trade game. With China at its back, and Afghan Taliban in its corner, Pakistan wants to turn this region into a hub for economic connectivity–a gateway for China and Russia to access the Indian Ocean, and a conduit for trade to reach Central Asia and beyond.
This makes Pakistan a more ambitious player in the new Great Game, than it has ever been before. And in the process, it also provides Pakistan with regional leverage to counter Indian hybrid war.
However, these are precarious matters. They require long-term strategies, with a patient approach and the ability to foresee the course of history. The past two hundred years bear testament to the fact that anyone who has entered the Great Game in Afghanistan, with selfish goals and a tactical approach, has been swallowed by the arid expanse of Afghanistan. Pakistan cannot fall into this trap. It must devise a strategy—a long-term approach—which is factors in the realities of Afghanistan and prosperity of its people.
The geographic flux of the Great Game in Afghanistan, which has been fought over for centuries, even millennia, is alive still. And, before entering it, we must take a moment, gather our breath, and devise a strategy that factors-in the collective well-being of people from Pakistan and Afghanistan.